RALEIGH, N.C. — The Army has approved a concert event organized by atheist and agnostic soldiers to take place next spring at Fort Bragg.
Organizers planned to hold the "Rock Beyond Belief" event this year, but they canceled after accusing Fort Bragg leadership of failing to provide the same level of support it gave to an evangelical Christian concert last fall.
Supporters hailed the Army's decision.
"You know those goosebumps you get when your favorite song hits that sweet spot? I got those," said Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists.
"I was overcome with joy and a sense of vindication."
The plan is to hold the event on March 31 at the main parade field at Fort Bragg, where the Christian-themed "Rock the Fort" concert was held.
Famed atheist Richard Dawkins is scheduled to appear, along with musicians, speakers and other entertainment.
"This just might be the turning point in our struggle for acceptance," Sgt. Griffith said. "I mean it. I get letters daily from service members asking for advice on how to do something like what's going on at Fort Bragg."
Final approval for the event came last week, Fort Bragg spokesman Ben Abel said.
The festival will get the same treatment from Fort Bragg that other groups receive, he said.
"Our logistical support will be the same as what we did for Rock the Fort," he said, meaning Bragg will provide the venue, security and basic utilities. "That's what we provide for any private organization."
The event is partly a reaction to the Rock the Fort concert last fall, which was organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State opposed the event, claiming the event was an unconstitutional use of military resources aimed at winning converts to Christianity.
The initial Rock Beyond Belief concert was scheduled to happen in April, but Sgt. Griffith called it off after saying Bragg leadership was not offering the same support it had given to the Christian event, which Fort Bragg leaders denied.
There were disagreements over the venue, the potential size of the crowd and promotional materials, but especially on the subject of funding.
This time around, organizers of the secular festival raised $50,000 for the event, which will pay for speakers and entertainers and other expenses.
"There is no going back in to the 'atheist closet,' " said Sgt. Griffith, who has also organized a local chapter of Military Atheists and Secular Humanists for like-minded soldiers and veterans.
Fort Bragg, home to the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Forces, is one of the military's largest bases.
It has about 58,000 uniformed military personnel and roughly 13,000 civilian workers.